This Lent, Strive for Improvement, not Perfection

This author shares how to strive for progress, not perfection, during the Lenten season.

This Lent, many of us are giving something up or establishing a new daily practice, but it’s not at all uncommon that we’ll stumble along the way. At this point, the question becomes what to do next, and for the perfectionists among us, finding that answer isn’t always easy. 

Being a perfectionist is one of those “good” character flaws that a person might acknowledge during a job interview. Even when there is recognition that it is problematic, people often still cling to it and may even be proud to suffer from it. It’s like being a workaholic in a culture like ours where overworking is valorized

The desire to live faithfully can generate or reinforce a strong impulse to seek perfection. After all, Jesus does say, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Striving for excellence is compatible with our deepest desires for flourishing, joy, and communion. It is one reason why mundane, watered-down versions of Christianity seem so unappealing to many of us. 

Despite our desire to be perfect, though, we still stumble, we still make mistakes, we still struggle to always do what is right — it’s human nature. So what’s a perfectionist to do? Downplay the mistake and make an excuse to cling to the image of perfection? Or, once perfection is unachievable, simply give up?

If you’ve abstained from meat on Lenten Fridays, you’ve probably had the distinctly unpleasant experience of eating a delicious cheeseburger for lunch, then suddenly realizing what day it was. But the day is not ruined, the person is not ruined. The next meal offers the next opportunity to get back on track.  

Perhaps you have tried to give up profanity, but then are suddenly cut off in traffic and seemingly transformed in an instant into Samuel L. Jackson on a plane with an inordinate number of snakes. Maybe you have committed to doing some spiritual reading every day or reaching out to a friend, but the day has flown by or it has simply slipped your mind. 

It is okay to come up short, and it is okay to be disappointed. But instead of looking for excuses or giving up, the key is to just pick yourself back up and keep moving forward. The next day, do two readings or reach out to two friends. Be extra focused or careful with your language or in whatever way you are breaking with previously entrenched behavior. Anticipate potential potholes so it’s easier to avoid them. Instead of cashing out, double down.  

Since Aristotle, philosophers have argued that virtue is built in everyday routines — habits that are carried out over time. When they are bad habits, it is difficult to break them. Likewise, there is a certain momentum to good habits

Yet there are instances where one slip-up can lead to many more. Anyone who has tried to go to the gym every day, or every other day, has probably had the experience of maintaining this for a while, suddenly missing a day, then not getting back to the gym for weeks or even months. In these moments, a failure to live up to our goals or ideals can either be an inflection point or a tiny blip. 

In his most revelatory interview, Pope Francis was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” (which is the name he was given before being elected pope). The pope, who had captivated the imagination of the world and appeared on countless magazine covers for his inspiring words and actions, responded, “I am a sinner.” For a pope who preaches joy, isn’t this an excessively negative mentality? 

In fact, it just might be the opposite. The pope is not perfect, and he’s the first to admit it. No matter how hard we try to be perfect, we will come up short. But if we can accept this fact, we can move forward without giving up. Instead of fleeing from reality or giving up on becoming a better person, we can move forward in hope. Pope Francis explained himself further, saying, “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

Every mistake or wrong decision can drag us down into dejection and despair — or, we can fight back against those impulses, trusting in the infinite mercy and patience of God. So whether Lent is a time to take on a practice you’ve been doing since childhood, or you are jumping back into it for the first time in years, or are trying it for the first time, it is the perfect time to cultivate this trust. 

Lent can help us to reorient our relationship with God, others, and the world around us. But to do so, we have to keep moving forward, even if we stumble along the way.

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